A few thoughts to jump start your Friday morning:
WIN THE BATTLE UP FRONT AND UF WILL ADVANCE For the No. 7 seed Florida Gators (14-9) to advance beyond today’s NCAA Tournament first round (12:15, CBS, Hinkle Field House) matchup in Indianapolis, the defensive focus has to be on Virginia Tech’s two big guys – 6-9, 235-pound center Kevin Aluma (15.0 points, 8.0 rebounds) and 6-7, 230-pound power forward Justyn Mutts (9.6 points, 6.5 rebounds). Neutralize those two guys and you have to like Florida’s chances to play Sunday against the winner of No. 2 seed Ohio State (21-9) and No. 15 Oral Roberts (16-10).
The first option for the Hokies is to pound it inside where Aluma and Mutts are physically imposing. Both Aluma and Mutts will take the 3-pointer if opponents leave them alone, but both are more comfortable inside five feet. Aluma is hitting 35.1 percent on his 57 3-point attempts and 48.9 percent overall, while Mutts is shooting at a 51.6 percent clip overall and 34.1 percent from distance. The problem for the Hokies is if either Aluma and Mutts get in foul trouble, there isn’t much in the way of size or quality coming off the bench.
Both 6-11 Colin Castleton and 6-10 Omar Payne can defend the Hokies inside, but can they score? Castleton has scored only 10 points in the last two games while Payne has managed only 11 in Florida’s last four. It will take a better offensive game than that for Florida to win. Additionally, Anthony Duruji has to stay out of foul trouble. He’s not much of an offensive force, but Duruji is a strong defender and rebounder who is quite capable of neutralizing Mutts.
Prediction: Castleton will play the best game he’s played since a 14-point outing against Kentucky in Lexington and Tre Mann will eat up whoever guards him. If Tyree Appleby finishes with more assists than turnovers, Florida advances.
SPRING PRACTICE ABOUT TO END FOR UF FOOTBALL The two words I keep hearing about Florida’s spring football practice, which will end with a Saturday scrimmage, are erratic and improved. Erratic as in an offense that has struggled to find rhythm and consistency. Improved as in the defense, which spent 2020 in a funk like we’ve never seen at UF.
While I believe it will be extremely difficult to match last year’s yardage and point production, I do believe Dan Mullen will figure out what works and what doesn’t in the offseason. The product I believe we will see in the fall will take advantage of the best speed UF has had at running back in years and another explosive group of wide receivers. I think the guy who will surprise us in the fall at running back is Lorenzo Lingard, who finally seems to have regained his speed and elusiveness after the knee injury he suffered when he was at Miami. I expect Justin Shorter to be an absolute beast wide receiver.
The two question marks with the offense are quarterback and the play on the line. Mullen’s history of developing quarterbacks tells me he will find a package of plays that Emory Jones can execute at a high level and go with it. It might not be as sophisticated as the play sheet Kyle Trask worked off of, but Jones doesn’t have to be the next Kyle Trask, just the first Emory Jones. Although the line play has been a problem in the spring, I expect improvement in the fall, particularly if Stewart Reese moves out to right tackle. I think the left side with Richard Gouraige and Ethan White will be solid and I think Josh Braun is going to be very good at right guard. Reese came to UF to play right tackle, which is what he played at Mississippi State. Jean Delance has been given every opportunity for two years to prove he can get it done at right tackle. I don’t think he’s capable. The question will be can Kingsley Eguakun step in at center. If he can, the O-line will be improved.
Improvement is the word for the defense but let’s be real here. It won’t take a whole lot to be better than last year. What encourages me to believe the improvement will be consequential are the two transfers in the middle. Daquan Newkirk and Antonio Shelton are big guys – both 6-3 and 318 pounds – are both effective run stoppers. I keep thinking back to the Texas A&M game when the Gators couldn’t contain Isaiah Spiller. I think these guys will lead a renaissance in the middle of the line with help from Gervon Dexton and Desmond Watson. If Watson can get his weight down from 430 to the 380 range he’s going to be beastly.
Everything I’ve heard is that the linebacker play will be much improved and that there is newfound aggressiveness in the secondary thanks to new hire Wesley McGriff.
It’s a long time between now and September, and while not all the news coming out of spring practice has been encouraging, I get the feeling the Gators aren’t going to do much of a backslide in 2021. Georgia is going to get all the hype and I’m fine with that. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing for UF to fly under the radar for 2021.
GATORS THRASH AGGIES 13-4 TO OPEN SEC PLAY
The 5th-ranked Gators (14-5, 1-0 SEC) opened up the SEC portion of their schedule Thursday night, riding a 16-hit attack and an 11-strikeout performance by Tommy Mace (4-0) to take a 13-4 win over Texas A&M. It was quite a turnaround from Florida’s disappointing 10-2 loss to Florida State in Tallahassee back on Tuesday.
Florida did all of its damage in three innings – a 3-run third, a 6-run fourth and a 4-run sixth. That was more than enough for Mace (4-0), who scattered six hits, didn’t walk a batter and gave up only two earned runs in seven innings.
Florida found the Aggie pitching far more palatable than what it saw in Tallahassee Tuesday night when the Seminoles struck out 16 Gators. Florida hitters whiffed only five times Thursday night. Down at the bottom of the Florida batting order it was all about the freshmen. Catcher Mac Guscette had a 4-4 night with a double and an RBI and second baseman Colby Halter went 2-4 that included a 2-run homer, his third of the season. Nathan Hickey went 3-4 with a double and an RBI and Jud Fabian had a double, his 7th homer and three RBI.
The Gators face the Aggies tonight with Jack Leftwich (3-0, 1.82 RBI) going for his fourth win of the season.
BUSY WEEKEND FOR UF SPRING SPORTS
Gymnastics: Already the SEC regular season champion, Florida’s No. 1 ranked gymnastics team heads to Huntsville, Alabama for the Southeastern Conference Championship meet. The Gators have posted the nation’s highest score this year (198.275) and feature the nation’s top individual gymnast in Trinity Thomas, who ranks No. 1 in the all-around, floor exercise and uneven bars while ranking 6th on the vault and 8th on the balance beam. LSU, which ranks fourth nationally, is the No. 2 seed while 8th-ranked Alabama is seeded 3rd and 9th-ranked Arkansas is seeded 4th. Due to positive COVID-19 tests within the program, Georgia will not compete in Huntsville.
Men’s tennis: The Gators (13-1, 8-0 SEC) venture outside the SEC this weekend when they host Florida State Sunday afternoon. The Gators have won 10 straight matches and are now ranked No. 2 nationally.
Softball: The 5th-ranked Gators (18-2, 2-1 SEC) travel to Starkville to face Mississippi State (15-8, 0-3 SEC) for a three-game weekend series.
Women’s swimming: With 53.5 points, the 7th-ranked Gators are in 14th place after two days at the NCAA Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Volleyball: If the 7th-ranked Gators (16-2) can take out unbeaten and 3rd-ranked Kentucky (16-0) twice this weekend at the O-Dome they can win the Southeastern Conference championship. The Gators and Kentucky go at it today at 1 p.m. and Saturday at 4 p.m.
Lacrosse: The 11th-ranked Gators (3-2) will open up play in the American Athletic Conference this weekend in Philadelphia where they take on Temple Friday and Sunday. Because COVID-19 wiped out last year’s conference season it has been more than 650 days since the Gators played in a league game.
Women’s golf: The 22nd-ranked Gators tee it up at the Liz Murphey Invitational Tournament in Athens, Georgia today.
OVER, UNDER, AROUND AND THROUGH THE SEC
Alabama: The No. 2 seed Crimson Tide (24-6) is a solid 17-point favorite to take out Iona (12-5) in the East Region at Hinkle Fieldhouse (4 p.m., TNT).
Arkansas: The No. 3 seed Hogs (22-6) are 8.5-point favorites to beat Colgate (14-1) in today’s first round South Regional Game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (12:45 p.m., TRUTV).
Auburn: Wide receiver Anthony Schwartz ran an unofficial 4.26 40-yard dash at Auburn’s pro day Thursday. Henry Ruggs of Alabama had the fastest time at the NFL Combine last year in Indianapolis (4.27).
Georgia: Kirby Smart says former Florida and South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp, now an analyst at Georgia, is “probably the guy I lean on most.” Muschamp, who is receiving a $15 million-plus buyout at South Carolina, is being paid $300,000 at Georgia.
Kentucky: Junior defensive end Josh Pascal, who had 32 tackles, 1.0 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in 2020, is being singled out by HBC Mark Stoops as a candidate for a breakout season in 2021. “Just with his work ethic, his comfort zone, moving in, I think you’re going to see him be an impact guy,” Stoops said.
LSU: The No. 9 seed Tigers (18-9) remain scant 1.5-point favorites to knock off No. 8 St. Bonaventure (16-4) in Saturday’s first round East Regional at Assembly Hall on the Indiana University campus (1:45 p.m., TNT) … Myles Brennan’s abdominal injury that kept him out of the final eight football games last year was so unusual that the surgical procedure would have been named after him if he had decided to go that route. Brennan elected to let the injury heal on its own. He’s currently participating in LSU’s spring practice.
Mississippi State: Although Will Rogers (1,976 passing yards, 11 TDPs in 2020) is the incumbent starter at quarterback, he’s competing this spring against Southern Miss transfer Jack Abraham (1,224 passing yards, 7 TDPs) ... Mississippi State will travel to Saint Louis Saturday for a first round game in the NIT.
Missouri: Even without second-leading scorer Da’mion Harris, No. 8 Oklahoma (15-10) is a 1-point favorite to take out No. 8 Missouri (16-9) in the first round Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium (4 p.m., TNT).
South Carolina: When South Carolina opens spring practice Saturday, Luke Doty (405 passing yards, 2 TDPs) will be the No. 1 quarterback but he will be pushed by St. Francis (PA) transfer Jason Brown and 4-star recruit Colten Gauthier.
Tennessee: No. 4 seed Tennessee (18-8) is a solid 8.5-point favorite to beat Pac-12 Tournament champ Oregon State (17-12) in today’s first round Midwest Region game (4:30 p.m., TNT) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse … The Vols have been forced to shut down the football program due to positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing.
Texas A&M: Redshirt freshman wide receiver Demond Demas was arrested for possession of less than two ounces of marijuana.
Vanderbilt: No Vandy player had a number on his jersey when the Commodores began spring practice. New HBC Clark Lea is making players earn their number in practice.
ONE FINAL PITHY THOUGHT: Members of Florida State University’s Historical Legacy Subcommittee voted 6-2 to reject a recommendation to keep Doak Campbell’s name on the football stadium. Campbell, who was the president of FSU back when it was an all-women’s school from 1941-45, would not allow nearby FAMU students on campus during his tenure. History professor and committee chair Maxine Jones says Campbell wasn’t a racist but merely following the rules set by the state at the time. If the President’s Task Force on Anti-Racism, Equity and Inclusion elects to remove Campbell’s name it will be interesting to see what the University of Florida does about having the names of former senators Spessard Holland and George Smathers on buildings. Holland and Smathers were considered part of the “Solid South” which fought hard against integration prior to the Civil Rights Act being signed.